Thursday, February 18, 2010

Best Laid Plans

This week’s notebook is going to be a progress report on my efforts to finish a history of La Farge and put it into some type of book for all to enjoy. When I began writing these local history notebooks back in May of 2007, I stated then that the purpose of these bi-monthly columns would be to tell some of the interesting stories that I came across doing research on the history of La Farge project. I will soon be approaching three years in the process of keeping the readers of the La Farge Episcope updated on that project. Along the way we have shared stories about the village and some of the interesting events that have transpired over the years. We have seen how a La Farge boy went away to Hollywood and won an Oscar. Another local lad became nationally famous for his ability to float. We have taken walks together down La Farge’s Main Street from the past. We have discussed the big snowstorms, the good basketball and baseball teams, businesses like Nuzums that have lasted a century and others that have been in the village for twenty years like Organic Valley. We shared in the coming and going of the railroad to La Farge, the village’s fight over saloons licenses, the village’s 4th of July celebrations over the years, and the development of the school system.

During the entire time that I have been writing these notebooks, I have continued to research on the history of the village. Former LHS classmate and history-buddy Gary Hagen tipped me off early on that all of the copies of the La Farge newspapers were on microfilm at the Viola Public Library. For the past two years I have generally spent two mornings a week there scanning the old copies of the La Farge Enterprise. I have been to Madison on several occasions to go over information at the Wisconsin State Historical Society. I have spent many hours at the Vernon County Museum in Viroqua and many more hours at the Lawton Library here in La Farge. I love to do this research. Internet sites also have been useful in my search.

Other history-buddies have guided me in the search. Martha Olson in East Troy started me on the path to information on my own family’s past that helped immensely and still keeps in contact on a regular basis. Dawn Dosch-Betters from Florida and Jim Tilley from California had information for me, then later came to visit me to learn more history of when their family was here in La Farge. Donny Burnard has sent historic photos of La Farge on several occasions. Dozens of others have sent photos and other helpful bits of information along the way these last few years. These contacts have been very helpful and greatly appreciated.

Maxine Shird leads a cadre of local folks who keep me updated and walking along the correct path on this search. I have a dozen people here in La Farge that I can and do contact when I’m looking for answers to a poser from the past. Lonnie, Gail, and Matt at the Episcope office have served as a repository for information and photos on my quest. You need support like this for such an endeavor.

So, let’s start with the good news. I have a title for the book. It is:

La Farge

The Story of A Kickapoo River Town

An Unfinished History

By Brad Steinmetz

Pretty catchy title, huh? Which parts of the title don’t you like, the “Unfinished History” line? Well, I haven’t finished it yet, so that line really holds true. When I do finish the book, it will still hold true. My book isn’t going to have everything about La Farge in it, so I’ll leave it to others to fill in those missing pieces. The “unfinished” doesn’t mean that I’ll do another book about La Farge later, but others might want to.

Another positive aspect to my project is that I have half of the book written. I have written an introduction that explains who I am, why I’m writing the history, how the information is organized and what I’m including in the book. (The organization of the book was a real hang-up for me, but once I settled on a format to use, the writing has come easier.) I have written a prelude that sets dramatic anticipation for the rest of the action, something my old college roommate, Joe Porter, tipped me off to a while back. Chapters 1, 2,3, and 4 are about done, totaling nearly ninety pages of written material. A “Chapter Notes” section at the end is being compiled as I write, so much of that is done.

Now for some bad news, you were waiting for that, weren’t you?

There are three chapters left to complete, which include the conclusion. Each of those chapters is going to cover some major topics like floods and dam projects. I might have another ninety pages to write. There will be lots of photographs to accompany the manuscript. How those will be assembled is still being debated between my chief editor/publisher/history-buddy, Chuck Hatfield and me. At the end of the book I will include a number of the Local History Notebook columns that I feel will help tell the story about the village. There could be nearly eighty of those, so selecting which ones to use and reformatting those will be a chore as well. The last three chapters, the photographs, and the notebook columns will all take time.

I intended to have the book completed and ready to be released by this 4th of July. That isn’t going to happen; I’m not going to have enough time to get it completed in three and a half months (although I may come close). Instead, I now want to get it done so that it can be released for the next Small Town Christmas here in La Farge. That will be the first Saturday in December. You can hold me to that date, I think.

In the mean time, I want to show the photographs that have been complied on La Farge’s history at this year’s 4th of July weekend. This photo show on La Farge’s history will be in the school gymnasium on July 3, which is the All-School Reunion day and on the 4th. Brian Turner, another history-buddy, will help with the show and he is a veteran at these sorts of photo displays, so it should be fun to walk through. Some of the students at La Farge High School will also help.

Speaking of La Farge students working on history projects, check out the new “La Farge History Project” just completed by Amy Lund’s LHS Local History Class. It is on the school’s website at Click on La Farge History Project and there you will find the student’s work. There are oral history interviews, lots of photographs of La Farge – past and present, and several short histories on various topics. Some of the student work on this project is nicely done. Check it out; you might enjoy it.

So that’s where I am on this little project on telling La Farge’s story. Keep the information, photographs, and remembrances coming to me at Box 202, La Farge 54639 or I really appreciate hearing from everybody. Working together we will get the story of this little river town told.

Monday, February 1, 2010

More Dam History

When Senator William Proxmire announced his withdrawal of support for the La Farge Dam Project in October 1975, the actual work on the project did not stop. Previously appropriated federal funds were still in the pipeline and would be spent by the Corps of Engineers, the federal agency working on the project. Negotiations on the final purchases of land and easements needed for the project, mostly in the Ontario area, continued. Indeed, Joe Davis of Ontario, became known as “The Last Man Standing” because of his refusal to sell to the Corps during this time. Eventually, Davis would win out and retained some parcels that the Corps never did buy.

The leadership of the Corps’ regional headquarters, believing in the old maxim of “Never Say Never!” had sought solutions that might be politically digestible to conclude the La Farge project. Drawing on a commissioned study done by the URS Corporation, the Corps announced an alternative compromise on a “Wet-Dam” solution in November of 1976. The compromise called for the completion of the dam structure located north of La Farge to impound a smaller lake of 840 acres. This would be down from the previous plans for a lake of over 1,800 acres. The new smaller lake would have an elevation at 822 feet above sea level compared to 840 feet with the bigger lake. What the URS proposal had done was shrunk the water impoundment back to the same sized lake as when the project first had been authorized in 1962. The new smaller lake would fill up much of the Star Valley lowlands and cover the river’s lowlands up to Rockton as well as the lower portions of Weister and Jug Creeks. This new proposal of reverting to the earlier lake size and depth was a “Blast From The Past!” in many regards, but it did have one new feature. The Corps asked for a variance on water quality in the smaller lake from the Wisconsin DNR. Other alternatives listed by the URS study included protective dikes downstream on the Kickapoo River for the villages of La Farge, Viola, and Gays Mills.

The Corps’ new smaller lake wet-dam proposal tried to address some of the reasons for opposition to their previous plan, particularly in the area of environmental concerns. By asking for a variance on the water quality issue, the Corps was trying to buy time to deal with that issue. The earlier study, which had been done on water quality of the La Farge Lake by the UW-Madison, was already under attack by local soil & water conservation groups and agencies. By buying time with a variance on water quality in the smaller impoundment, the Corps could wait for solutions to come forward to rectify the problem. Another environmental concern addressed by the alternate proposal was the loss of rare plant species. By lowering the level of the lake by nearly twenty feet, much of the habitat for the rare plant species would not be submerged as in the previous lake level. Or so the Corps thought.

Reaction from environmental groups to the Corps new proposal was immediate and all negative. The governing council of the DNR rejected the variance request on water quality by a 6-1 vote. In December 1976, the Scientific Areas Preservation Council, based in Madison, issued a statement, which said that 75% of the Kickapoo Valley habitat for the endangered species Arctic Monkshood and Lapland Rosebay would be “inundated” by the La Farge Reservoir under the alternate proposal.

The reaction on the local scene also took a negative turn regarding the Corps latest proposal. After the rejection of the Corps water quality variance by the state’s DNR board, Lonnie Muller, editor of the La Farge Epitaph published a scathing editorial titled, “DNR, Kiss Our Butt”. In the editorial, Muller promoted the idea that the reason for the rejection of the variance by the DNR was because that state agency already had other ideas for the dam project property. In other words, the DNR wanted that nearly 9,000 acres in the Kickapoo Valley taken for the dam project for its own uses. I’m not sure if the local editor originated that idea, but he certainly gave it greater exposure. It was an idea that would remain pervasive on a local level right up through the present. (Ironically, when the land did become available to state agencies during the creation of what would become the Kickapoo Valley Reserve in the 1990’s, the DNR would have to pass on the property.)

At the same time that the Corps alternate wet-dam proposal was being introduced, local protest turned to a more hard-lined stance. Bridge #16, now on the “government land” was set fire late in November. The Schroeder Bridge, as it was known locally, ironically had caught fire once before, back in the 1930’s. (Could Immaculate Ignition have been at work here?) Most thought the bridge being set on fire was a local protest to the dam controversy, another way to vent frustration. When another suspicious fire was ignited in nearby Bard Lawrence Hollow the following month, also of unknown and mysterious origin, the message seemed clear that at least a certain part of the local population was not taking the defeat of the dam project graciously.

As 1977 began, State Senator Paul Offner tried to inject some reason into the whole process by appealing to the various factions to sit down and develop a policy as to how to proceed. La Farge businessman Ward Rose offered a reward of $1,000 for anyone who would tell the truth about the La Farge dam project. Local activist and dam supporter Bernice Schroeder wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter asking for his help in resolving the matter.

To further fuel the controversy, Wisconsin Governor Patrick Lucey rejected the Corps alternate wet-dam proposal entirely and further rejected Senator Offner’s idea of a policy session. Editor Muller reacted to the Governor’s rejections by calling him a “Liar” in an Epitaph editorial.

In February 1977, the Corps of Engineers threw up its hands and asked for a halt to the La Farge project. The agency had run out of alternatives and political support for the project. The local reaction to the Corps’ announcement was to organize a new group called KLOUT, Kickapoo Landowners United Together. The group’s first president was Roger Gabrielson (Gabby, as he was known, was also the La Farge School District president at the time), the treasurer was La Farge teacher Al Szepi, and Bernice Schroeder was secretary. In its first public meeting held at the La Farge gymnasium, KLOUT attracted a crowd of nearly 200, who vowed to sign and circulate petitions to support what the new organization stood for. KLOUT’s platform was simple; either finish the La Farge dam and lake as originally proposed or give the land back to the people. A new phase in the dam controversy was beginning.